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Walker & Muir

“Walker & Muir”

By Brian K. Brecht

As Gentleman Adventurers, we aspire to the grand adventure. But at times, while seeking that wide-ranging expedition; there materializes a simple, less complex moment, that provides as much excitement as you hope the big journey will offer. This story is one such adventure.

While finding our feet with some smaller trips, Tom and I have been investigating options for a larger scale expedition later this year. One such option was exploring the Yosemite Valley in greater detail than either had done previously. It was during our investigation, I remembered a story about a man named Joseph Walker.

Captain Joseph Walker, born in Roane County Tennessee in December of 1798, was by all accounts, a great adventurer. Joining Benjamin Bonneville’s expedition in 1832, he led a company to explore the Great Salt Lake, and to find an overland route to California. I first read about Walker in Richard Grant’s book entitled “American Nomads”. Though the book isn’t about Walker specifically, a large section is devoted to Walker’s nomadic migration west and his interaction with the local people. 

What intrigued me the most was the generally supported assumption that Walker was likely the first white man to ever set eyes upon the Yosemite Valley. It fascinated me to think you could trace back such a subtle yet profound moment in the American west. What I found even more fascinating was that Walker had settled in the Bay area, not too far from where I lived now. Additionally his grave still existed and could be seen in the Alhambra Cemetery (also called the pioneer Cemetery), in Martinez California.

I mentioned in our Steinbeck article, for me, history comes alive when there’s something tangible to come into contact with. Visiting Walkers grave seemed like a fitting pilgrimage, if I was indeed going to explore Yosemite as a modern adventurer. It was at this point, while researching where to find the Alhambra Cemetery; I discovered that the John Muir National Historic Site was also located in Martinez, not more than a mile or so south from the Alhambra. I knew very little about Muir but you can’t read about Yosemite without learning about this great man. So it was at this point that Tom and I agreed, if Yosemite was a possible GAC destination, then we had to learn more about these two men.

It was a very rainy February day when we decided to hunt the ghosts of Walker and Muir. It was fortuitous timing, as the plane was in need of some routine maintenance, and the tides weren’t cooperating for an adventure into the Bay. So we grabbed our rain gear and cameras and headed to Martinez. An easy drive led us into downtown and we quickly found signs leading us to the Northwest part of town. A small city that has seen its share of history in terms of agriculture and industry, at one time both fighting to shape its character. Our drive led us along a winding road, passing the regional shoreline, and as we rounded an upward curve, we quickly came across the wrought iron gates of the Alhambra.

It was a simple journey, with not too much effort, and a journey that seemed to end as easily as it would start. The gates, beautiful in their construction, stood chained and locked before us in the rain. Any possible glimpse of Walker’s grave was answered on a sign hanging by the side of the entrance. It simply read “No Trespassing”. However as we forced ourselves past our disappointment, and in truth my stupidity for not checking that it would be open beforehand, we followed the sign further where it said, “access may be obtained at police department”.

So that was it, we would head back to town, find the police department and see if we could get let in. This is where a seat-of-the-pants journey can bite you in the exact same place. It was a Sunday and there wasn’t much luck finding someone who could get us into the cemetery.

We spent a good amount of time trying to find other options. Who could we call, who else could we ask? We were directed to the local Historical Society but again, it being a Sunday, left no options for us to gain entry. This day was turning into a bust, so after a walk downtown, we got some breakfast and discussed our options. There weren’t many, so it was a quick decision to postpone our plans for Walker and concentrate on Muir. After an enjoyable meal we headed south to the Muir historical site.

Neither of us had any idea what this site would entail. We pulled into the lot of a small building that we assumed to be a museum of sorts. In fact it was simply the entrance to the nine-acre ranch, all that remained of the former 2600 acre orchard formerly belonging to Dr. John Strentzel, the man who would become John Muir’s father-in-law. Sitting atop a gentle rise, was a beautiful Victorian mansion that, after marrying Dr. Strentzel’s daughter, would eventually become the Muir family home.

We spent a good deal of time going through the house; all but a few small rooms are open to the public. By far, Muir’s library, or Scribble Den as he called it, was a keen point of interest for Tom and I. The physical house brought me closer to the man, but it also offered an interesting contrast. The image you always see of Muir is the weathered outdoorsman, the rugged wanderer.  But that image, somehow for us, contradicted the wealthy landowner and farmer he became when he married his wife Louisa Wanda Strentzel.  Clearly a man of means, it highlighted for us, just how he had been able to be so influential in his day.

And how, with the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, helped to bring about things like the National Parks System.

But still, our thirst for the hunt had not been satiated.  There was one more puzzle piece to find, and we felt we had to find Muir’s grave before we could call this adventure a success. We had come tantalizingly close to Walker’s final resting place (if we had known which grave stone was his we would no doubt had seen it), so we needed to find Muir’s in a small attempt to pay tribute to these men.

Through a series of Internet articles, we found Muir’s grave was actually not in the Alhambra. In fact, when the ranch was at its height; the family had created a small burial plot quietly resting along side Alhambra Creek, nestled within a pear orchard.  Now 100 years later (he died in 1914), all but the nine acres of the estate that surround the house have been developed, and the burial site is enclosed on all sides by private property. But the plot itself still exists. Happily in the recent years the National Park Service has purchased the site and is trying to find a way to allow pilgrims such as us, the chance to visit and pay our respects. But as of now that was not available. At least according to various websites and the Park Ranger at the Muir residence.

Not to be deterred, we dug a little deeper, and through a series of county documents, found a map to the very location. In this age of technological chaos, it was like finding a long lost treasure map. The site did indeed sit within a residential neighborhood. However there was a path clearly marked and leading from one of the local roads straight to the site. We had to see it for ourselves. It was back to the truck and a short drive following the map. It easily led to the cross street we needed when WHAM! We were stopped dead again by another gate, this one, very modern with keypad entry and all. Obviously the neighbors, tired of the likes of us, had closed off their private road to keep traffic to the site restricted, or more specifically, access to their neighborhood.

This would not do. Though we had learned some very interesting information, we knew we had to see this final piece.  Now we were on a mission. We had come all this way, not to be turned back. We sat in the truck while the rain continued to pound, studying the map. We had to be close. And with further examination realized there was a chance to approach the site from the opposite direction. Tom backed the truck out and turned us around; we would at least try.

Our map was true enough and as we reached the dead end to the street, Tom parked the truck in an empty lot boasting a weathered “For Sale” sign. From here we continued on foot and followed the road until we reached the end. The street ended at a guardrail overlooking Alhambra Creek. What the map didn’t reflect, or what I didn’t accurately read, was that we were now on the opposite side of the creek. We stared in dismay wondering if we were in the right place. Suddenly, as a barking dog rang in our ears, we spotted it. Through the thick brush we could make out the tops of a wrought iron fence that encircled the gravesite. We had found it! But our quarry was still 100 yards away and on the opposing bank.

We now come to one of my personal reasons for wanting to create the GAC. We all aspire to be something more, to be the man who we always wanted to be. For myself, the GAC isn’t my way of showing how great an adventurer I am, but rather my way to push my own boundaries to be the adventurer I have always wanted to be. To stretch myself into something more. And today epitomized it in one swift, simple action. Here we were, and in my head I thought, “well that’s that”. But this is why launching this project with Tom has been so motivational. He turned to me and said, “what are we doing after this?” I replied, “just going home I guess”.  Tom simply smiled and said, “so why don’t we just walk across?”

The creek quickly flowed about a dozen feet below us as the ridge sloped to the moving current. Generally speaking it didn’t appear that the creek would be too deep, it wasn’t as though this was a rushing torrent or anything. But the only way to really know would be to slide down the muddy bank, and get our feet wet, as they say.

Tom was first, blazing the trail I would soon follow. And before I knew it, Tom was knee deep in the rushing water. It was slow going, if only to ensure what current there was, didn’t knock us flat on our ass. But as Tom made it across, it was then my turn.

The water quickly filled my boots and where Tom went knee deep, I went in to mid-thy, dropping into a hole Tom had managed to miss due to his careful use of a probe stick. But that was it, soon I was out, climbing the rising bank, and as we walked over to the gravesite, we couldn’t help but have a rush of excitement.

There we stood, an incredibly trivial accomplishment compared to the man whose grave we now paid our respects to. But as I said at the start, what was to be a simple research trip, turned into an adventure of it’s own.

We didn’t stay long, though looking back I wish we had. It was easy to see why the Strentzel family had picked this spot for their final resting place, and all the more reason to not linger. Though it became an adventure for Tom and I, it was still a place of respect and we wanted to make sure we treated it as such. So it was back down the bank, through the water, and with soaking wet pants and shoes, walked our way back to the truck.

For me the trip highlighted something in me I am constantly trying to overcome. The fear to jump in with both feet, to take a chance. We chuckled the whole way home, but what kept running through my mind, was how had I not been with Tom, I would have never seen the things I had seen today. And if I could impart any words of wisdom, it would be “don’t be afraid to cross the water”.

Tom and I didn’t finish this trip with our customary toasting box. We felt like before we can call this adventure complete we still need to pay our respects to Captain Walker. So this week I’ll be contacting the Martinez Historical Society and ask about access to the Alhambra. Until then, the toast will have wait, but thoughts and plans for Yosemite will continue.

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